Thursday, September 19, 2019
Out of Liberty Review
Earlier in the summer when I reviewed "The Other Side of Heaven 2," I had no idea what the theater count was and thus I wrongly assumed it was only a Utah release. Turns out the movie opened in 205 theaters, which was a much wider release than I was expecting. After 12 weeks in theaters, "The Other Side of Heaven 2" has made $1.7 million, which is pretty good for a one of these smaller, local-ish Christian films. "Out of Liberty," though, only opened in 35 theaters, so this one does seem like it's actually a local film here in Utah only. Maybe a few locations outside. I do know from looking at my showtimes on IMDb that 22 of the 35 locations are here on the Wasatch Front. Where the other 13 locations are, I'm not sure. They're most likely in places like Idaho or Arizona that have a higher population of Latter-day Saints. In late July, Purdie also released "The Fighting Preacher," which started in 28 theaters and expanded into 37 theaters in its second weekend. So if you got that movie at your local theater this summer, I'm willing to bet that you also have "Out of Liberty" right now. If you don't have either, I'm guessing you'll have to wait until it comes to DVD, unless the movie catches on like wildfire. But based on early returns from this past weekend, I don't think that will be the case.
For better or for worse, "Out of Liberty" is a movie that assumes you know all about Joseph Smith and are curious in seeing a deeper dive of what he experienced in Liberty Jail. Some of these Latter-day Saint films at least make an attempt to appeal to a non-member audience. Whether or not that effort is successful is a different story, but at least there's an attempt. "Out of Liberty" makes no attempt. If you're not an active member of the Church and/or you don't care about Joseph Smith, this is not your movie. That's my disclaimer right now. And that's a bit of an interesting choice given that Garrett Batty is the director here. His previous two films, "The Saratov Approach" and "Freetown" were movies that had at least some sort of appeal to the general public. I think it was Larry King who said that "The Saratov Approach" was a great little independent film. Now I don't think "Out of Liberty" going a different approach is a bad thing by any means. It's just a different approach. And in many cases, having a very specific, niche audience can be a great thing. You don't have to worry about pandering to people outside your target audience. You can simply give them exactly what they want. If they're pleased with the result, then you did your job.
If you want to go into this movie completely blind as to what it's all about, feel free to exit this review and come back after you watch. If you don't mind a bit of an exploration of this, then proceed. With that out of the way, the specific angle here is, simply put, Liberty Jail. All of it. Nothing more, nothing less. We don't get a recap of who Joseph Smith is. There's also very little information given about the Saints' situation in Missouri. We don't even get to see why Joseph Smith and company got put in Liberty Jail. There's a few words of text that briefly describe the situation, but no visuals. After said text, the movie starts with them two months into their jail sentence, the month being December 1838. The introductory scene is of them formulating a plan to escape because they feel like that's their only way out. That plan fails. Because, you know, they ending up being there for six months. Following that, the movie goes in a very straight-lined narrative, giving highlights of their time in jail in four different sections: January, February, March and April. No, the movie doesn't have a nice and pretty three-act structure, thus this ends up as quite the tricky undertaking. Most of the time that Joseph and company were in Liberty Jail, it was cold, dark and lonely with nothing happening.
That's why I felt conflicted here. While there was a lot going on during this time period, if the decision is made to have the point of view strictly from Liberty Jail only, what do you do to make that story interesting? Yeah, they did a great job of setting the scene for Liberty Jail. It was cold and chilling. There were definitely some great individual moments. But when I had to stay in jail with them for the whole movie, I started to get claustrophobic a bit. It felt like I got thrown in jail for two hours with them and it began to be uncomfortable. It's just hard to maintain a great flow when you decide to handcuff yourself to just one point of view. And given that I'm well familiar with the story, I think it would've added to the emotion to see what the saints were going through while Joseph was stuck in prison. The events right before Joseph got thrown in Liberty Jail were emotional and heart-wrenching. The continued extermination order while Joseph was in prison was tragic. Pair all these events up and you have an excellent movie. With what we got instead, we feel bad for Joseph because he's cold and miserable. In reality, he was mostly sad about what the saints were going through and the fact that he could do nothing to help them given that he was stuck in this jail all winter.
Yet we don't get to see any of that. Instead, we get loaded with constant exposition the entire movie and that's just not as effective as seeing what's going on. That's why whenever these events have been portrayed in various movies, we do get to witness the full scope of what's happening from every angle. And I don't think this decision was made due to budget constraints. Batty's previous two movies have been fairly successful. I just think he wanted to tell a more constrained, personal story with this, thus giving us a different look at this then what we've had in the past. And I will say that does make this unique in the large library of movies based on Church history, so I give him points there. I just don't know if unique is always the best. I mean, when Liberty Jail is portrayed, it's never the focus point of the entire film and I think there's a good reason for that. It's just a bit exhausting when we zoom in and spend the whole movie there. It gets the point across just fine in 20-30 minutes as a part of something bigger in scope. And if I'm being honest, if I'm ever in the mood to dive into some Church history via film, I don't know how often I'm going to turn to this one when something like "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" is available instead.
The movie's soundtrack is also quite excellent. When moments of tension happened, I was successfully on the edge of my seat. Even though I know that they all stayed in Liberty Jail until April, their attempted escapes were framed and executed quite well. And all of the acting was solid. Now if we're going back to the nitpicky side of things, I do have to say that the actor who played Joseph Smith looked nothing like him. It made me laugh when the whole group stood up and Joseph Smith was short and chubby. I don't know how tall Brandon Ray Oliver is, but he looked like he was only 5'6" or 5'7" while I think Joseph was closer to 6'2" or something like that. So if we're going to get a random, non-member actor to play Joseph, why not cast someone who looks more like him? That said, he did a great job of portraying Joseph in the most honest and respectful way, so I appreciated that. And we also had a lot of other great supporting cast members, including Garrett Batty bringing back Corbin Allred from "The Saratov Approach" to play Porter Rockwell. Corbin Allred always gets into his roles and it's fun to watch him. And without saying more than I should, if you've been to the temple recently, you'll know exactly who Corbin Allred is when you see him.
Some other quick final thoughts. Again, if you are unfamiliar with Church history, some of the drama that happens won't have as strong of an effect. The main antagonist in the film is a mob member who is very angry about certain events that happened at the Battle of Crooked River. If that battle rings no bells, you're going to be at a disadvantage. Also, Alexander Doniphan plays a significant role in this. And if that name doesn't ring a bell, then you're also at a disadvantage because the movie assumes you already know him and doesn't bother explaining. If you're watching this at your home, you have the advantage of being able to pause and go over that. But if you're watching it in theaters, the movie has the potential to lose you. That's why I said earlier that if you're not an active member of the Church, this movie is probably not for you. Given that I am in the target audience, I personally wasn't bothered, but again it's worth noting. All in all, this movie does have plenty of great moments. It's not preachy, but it does leave you with enough of a spiritual high that I imagine most people won't even think of all things that I brought up here. I don't think it's a movie you need to rush out to see in theaters, but I do think it's worth a watch at some point. My grade here is a 7/10.